Kenny Chesney: ‘Entertainers detest audiences watching through cellphones’

The country star, on his 17 th album since 1994, has a new direction and strong things to say about the way our digital culture has changed human interaction

Like any big music starring, Kenny Chesney is used to people reaching out to shake his hand from the front rows of his stadium demonstrates. But he hasnt forgotten the woman in New Jersey last summer who clasped her hands in his, depicted him close, but never looked at him once. She was looking at her telephone, he recollects. She was so lost in the noise of it all, she missed the human connection. It was sad.

A risk of success is the cheapening of the message, and sometimes the messenger. Which is why on Cosmic Hallelujah, his 17 th album, Chesney moves another step closer to transforming his role as one of mainstream countrys most enduring superstars to an artist freshly invested in both challenging himself and pushing his audience his fans are known as the No Shoes Nation even if they are fine with the way things are. Chesney is 48 and while the world has certainly changed since 1999, where reference is released She Thinks My Tractors Sexy, hes changed along with it.

Theres more to my life than escapism, he says. I love that part of my life, but it is more important now to talk about other things. Its where I am at right now.

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Cosmic Hallelujah is the album destined to grow his audience, although with 28 No 1 records on the country chart, he hasnt precisely underserved them. But Americana fans would find much to admire here through songs like Jesus and Elvis, a bittersweet narrative told with traditional country elements and featuring his finest singing in years. And while anthems like Bucket and Bar at the Objective of the World are assured gravies for his blockbuster live demonstrates, Hallelujah also attains space for more thoughtful material that reflect both the anxiety of the times and the determination to move through it.

The centerpiece is Noise, the albums first single, which blasts through the digital overload of daily life. The lyrics appeared like a inundate and, with songwriters Ross Copperman, Shane McAnally and Jon Nite, Chesney crafted a dramatic treatise on the possibility we are becoming numb to intimacy. Unlike other sungs that tackle the same subject, Noise is less ripped from the headlines and more from his own personal diary. I felt it was affecting my creativity and my personal relationships, he says of the onslaught of 24/7 connectivity. I felt I was texting I love you instead of telling people I loved them.

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Unplugging now translates to leaving the cellphone off the table during dinners. But Chesney has the unique perspective of insuring just how immersed people have become in removing themselves from the present moment where reference is appears out from the stage of a football stadium and watches 50,000 people gazing back at him through their screens.

Its very frustrating, any entertainer will tell you they dislike it, he says. Especially for me I want to look at everybody straight in the eye and stimulate them feel something and its really hard to do that if theyre not looking at you but theyre looking at their telephone. Theyre missing the connection and taking fragments home with them. Its like looking at a bookshelf of books but you dont read any of them, you simply read a little bit of each.

Sun, sea and stetsons: Chesney on the beach. Photo: Ann Allister

Chesney arrived in Nashville not long after he graduated from East Tennessee State University in 1990. He immediately logged years in the downtown honky-tonks while signing a publishing bargain, which led to his first album, In My Wildest Dreams, in 1994. Back then he was a newcomer who had a voice comparable to George Straitand by the next decade he handily filled the shoes of Garth Brooks because of an abundance of hits and a natural ability to translate them to arena-sized audiences. As a new generation country artist who was also created on classic stone, Chesneys populist touch continued to grow through albums that reliably blended upbeat sentiments from the sun-and-sand belt.

But it was with The Big Revival, his album from 2015, that things turned a corner. Unusually prolific, with a new album out almost every year, Chesney took a full year to concentrate on the record that eventually covered a range of emotional ground. It also helped that he pledged not a single sung would mention a truck.

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Hallelujah continues that thread with anthems that, for Chesney, were collected because they focus on the stillness and balance of life in the current. Defining the World On Fire, a duo with Pink, reflects that maturity with its small moments that, near the end, explode into bliss; Small Town Somewhere brings listeners to images reminiscent of Luttrel, Tennessee, Chesneys hometown, where he remembers standing in the yard behind his grandmothers house and looking at the sky dreaming if there was anything beyond the county line. Luttrel, located about 20 minutes outside Knoxville, is slightly different today than he remembers. Now the distance between the small town and big city is pocketed by suburban sprawl. He can go home again his grandmother and mother still live in the area but when he does he is reminded of those early years.

That song is very much the truth. I merely had certain things sports, church, school, and family, and that was it, tells. I was a wondering kid.

The song Chesney says he never would have recorded five years ago is Rich and Miserable, which he admits is not just about the monetary riches hes enjoyed but the ambition that constructs climbing the endless ladder training exercises in addiction. The ballad is structured as an anthem that could easily pull an audience to it in the chorus, a nihilistic agreement that enough is never enough. Were too young until were too old/ Were all lost on the yellow brick road, he sings. American dream never wakes up.

The problem may be uniquely American, but he says it also represents immediately personal. When can you be happy and still be hungry and work hard? I struggle with that, he tells.

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Hallelujah is co-produced by Chesney with Buddy Cannon, a country music veteran who has been at the helm of the majority of his catalog. Their working relationship is unusual in that it has lasted so long and is also multi-generational. Cannon, 69, has written songs for George Strait and Mel Tillis and his production credits run from George Jones to Willie Nelson to Merle Haggard. Chesney says he remains indebted to Cannon because he was the first to teach him about the qualities that separate good ballads from bad. Hes one of the guys in township who knows so much about the history of songwriting here, he tells.

Jesus and Elvis arrived in Chesneys hands from Cannon through an email that simply said: Just listen. Chesney did and distinguished the lonesome core of the song that he tells might have made some of his peers nervous. This was the kind of sung that inspired me to move to town in the first place, he said. If it was anybody else creating my record, I doubt they would have found that sung and sent it.

This record joins recent efforts by Miranda Lambert, Chris Stapleton and others in pushing mainstream country closer to regaining ground it has lost due to the prevalence of party anthems that Chesney himself acknowledges he played a role in elevating. Whether a full renaissance is yet to be determined, but Chesney says he already has a song cycle in his hand that he wants to record as an acoustic album. When youve been doing it this long, there is the pressure of how do you keep going? But I have to do it. Im already looking ahead, he tells. Its only part of how Ive always done things. Because I cant help it.

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